Then came Thursday, when the leader of one of the most isolated and repressive regimes in the world — a government responsible for killing thousands in a quest to silence dissent — welcomed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Burma has lurched unexpectedly toward reform in the past three months. Its move has coincided with a broader attempt by Obama to pivot his administration’s foreign policy focus away from the Middle East, to counter-balance of China’s rise in Asia.
The result was the first U.S. secretary of state ever to set foot in the gaudy presidential palace in this constructed-from-scratch capital. And Clinton carried to her meeting with Burmese President Thein Sein a letter from Obama that conveyed praise, but also a warning that significantly more progress is needed for change to take root.
“For decades, the choices of this country’s leaders kept it apart from the global economy and the community of nations,” Clinton said after the meeting. “While the measures already taken may be unprecedented and welcomed, they are just a beginning.”
The Burmese overture — and the U.S. response — are freighted with risk for both sides. Thein Sein must balance the desires of his country’s restless opposition movement against those of the hard-liners within his own government. Obama could face criticism for coddling autocrats if Burma’s reform push proves less than genuine.
Ultimately, Burma’s leaders are thought to be seeking an end to U.S. sanctions, but Clinton on Thursday offered Thein Sein much smaller incentives. The two discussed loosening restrictions on United Nations funding for health and micro-finance projects, as well as the possibility of additional international aid.
The most direct result of their meeting could be a restoration of U.S. diplomatic relations, which would upgrade the American mission here to a full-fledged embassy headed by an ambassador, Clinton told reporters afterward.
Eager to convince U.S. officials of his sincerity, Thein Sein gave a detailed a 45-minute presentation on his plans for reforming the very areas of his authoritarian government that the United States and others have criticized for decades, according to a senior State Department official who was present at the meeting.
So far, the gestures of reform have included the release of political prisoners, greater media freedoms, and plans for political and economic reform. And the Burmese leader vowed Thursday to work toward releasing more prisoners, brokering a cease-fire with ethnic minorities and adopting international agreements on nuclear weapons development.
The Obama administration has proceeded cautiously with Burma’s reclusive leaders, careful not to declare success too early in a country that has shown promises of reform before, only to resume its crackdowns.